The Divide: Empire Strike

The Divide: Empire Strike

All of the advances the country has made in the area of environmental health and safety are under attack by the regime in Washington, D.C. The divide between environmental protections and corporate greed is now growing larger, and the worse is yet to come.

It all started with Trump’s nominations of anti-environment, pro-corporate, profit-above-all-else people to lead federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Departments of Energy and the Interior. Trump then imposed a gag order on the EPA so that the agency could no longer inform the taxpaying public, through the issuance of press releases or notices on its website, of environmental and health concerns that they have identified. Concerns such as: What is happening to protect citizens from chemically polluted drinking water (Hoosick Falls, N.Y.; Flint, Mich.)? Or, what actions are needed to improve the poor air quality around the Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany’s South End? And, as I write this, regulations that were imposed on major industrial polluters to control the amount of pollutants allowed to be disposed of in and on public water and lands are being eliminated. What’s next, allowing leaded gasoline again? Or repealing the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts? Perhaps we should be ordering our masks to wear when outside like they have to do in China on bad air days.

So, what can we do to protect ourselves from this attack on our health and environment?

It is now going to be up to the states and local governments to take the lead on environmental health and safety issues. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is going to have to step up its oversight and enforcement of our state’s clean air and clean water laws, rules and regulations. In this time of federal actions to gut the EPA, it is falling on the shoulders of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to pick up the slack. Governor Cuomo and the state legislature must amend the proposed 2017-2018 state fiscal year budget to approve increased hiring by the DEC of personnel to monitor industrial pollution limits and to investigate abuses of our environmental laws and regulations. A local example of why this is necessary is right in our own backyard. As reported by The Alt and other media outlets, there has been a large increase in chemical spills at the Momentive Performance Materials plant in Waterford since the workers went out on strike more than three months ago.  

Local governments have a role to play in this era of the regime’s attack on our environmental health and safety. While the oversight and enforcement of state law falls to the DEC, local governments can take actions to help clean up our environment. The Albany County legislature has an opportunity to do just that by passing a local law to ban the use of “Styrofoam” (Polystyrene foam) disposable food service ware by food service establishments in the county.  This proposal is an extension of the County’s 2013 law that banned Styrofoam food packaging in “chain stores.” 

The County is taking this action to expand the 2013 law, I hope, because styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” (U.S. National Research Council, 2014). The toxin can migrate from food containers into food and beverages when heated or in contact with fatty or acidic foods. Polystyrene does not biodegrade, thus adding to the burden on the soon-to-close City of Albany landfill. The EPA estimates that Styrofoam occupies as much as 20 percent of landfill space.  So, if we can cut down on the amount of Styrofoam being dumped in our landfills, the life of the landfills can be extended. On a personal self-serving note, I am tired of picking up these discarded Styrofoam food and drink containers from the streets and sidewalks in my neighborhood. I could probably fill a kitchen-sized trash bag every week with the Styrofoam containers I pick up while walking Jeter (our dog).

New York City is another local government that has taken action to limit the amount of trash that has to be collected and sent to landfills. NYC has passed legislation to reduce the use of single-use plastic carryout bags (like the ones you get at grocery stores). The NYC law would impose a five cent charge for each bag. There are exceptions to the fee, such as using the bags to put meat and fish products into so as to protect against cross-contaminating other food items in one’s reusable carryout bag. However, the NYS legislature is pushing back on this law by passing state legislation to prohibit NYC from putting this law into effect. The hypocrisy of this is that the majority of state legislators who are opposed to the NYC law are the same ones (Republicans) who are constantly promoting local control of local governance. But, as happens way too often, big money donations and pressure from corporate lobbyists ‘trump’ values when it comes to doing the right thing.

I think it’s time to remind state representatives that under the New York State Constitution, local governments are required to protect the health, safety, welfare and property of their residents. If local governments, acting on the wishes of their constituents, choose to do this by banning the use of unhealthy and trash-producing Styrofoam food containers or placing a fee on single-use plastic carry-out bags, then the state legislature should butt out and let the localities follow their constitutionally-required mandate to protect their citizens’ health and safety.

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